His work is portentous, his ideas useless. Bloom's reputation needs puncturing if literary criticism is again to be taken seriouslyby Joseph Epstein / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and literary critic, has been on a roll. His last two major books, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, were both bestsellers-unusual in itself for works of such high intellectual pretension. When the latter came out in paperback, its US publisher sent out a vast number of copies in its own special floor display, a la John Grisham. Bloom has recently won a MacArthur Fellowship, better known as a genius grant or a Big Mac; been chosen to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard; and been awarded the gold medal for criticism by the American Academy of Arts & Letters, of which he is also a member. The Washington Post called Bloom one of the three most important literary critics writing in English in the 20th century-the other two being FR Leavis and Edmund Wilson.
Bloom’s success is of a peculiarly American kind and yet not easily fathomed. As a critic, he is not that accessible and is capable of producing strikingly pretentious prose. (“Like Thoreau, Whitman has a touch of the Bhagavad-Gita, but the Hindu vision is mediated by western hermeticism, with its Neoplatonic and Gnostic elements.”) He claims to be of the school of aesthetic critics, saying that, “I feel quite alone these days in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic.” Yet he himself doesn’t produce anything approaching the aesthetically pleasing in his own writing. In an interview in the Paris Review, he declared that he never revises his prose, and nothing in his work refutes this impressive claim. Any critic ready to avail himself of such gargoylesque words as “psychokabbalistic” and “pneumognostic,” or who can write about the cosmos having been “reperspectivised by Tolstoy,” may be many things, but he ain’t no aesthete.
Nor does Bloom project an attractive, let alone a seductive, character. He is not the charmingly nutty type, but rather the exhaustingly garrulous professor. Such is Bloom’s loquacity that he discovered, in the midst of his psychoanalysis, that he was paying to give his analyst lectures “several times a week on the proper way to read Freud.” Bloom writes like a man accustomed to speaking to his inferiors-to students, that is, a captive audience. To them he may lay down the law, take great pleasure in his own performance, be utterly unworried about someone coughing politely…